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VW Golf GTI still in great shape at 40

AAP logoAAP 28/11/2016 Peter Atkinson
File pic of a VW Golf GTI car © AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE File pic of a VW Golf GTI car

A lot can change in 40 years. The colour of your hair, and the shape of your tummy, for instance.

But the past four decades have been particularly kind to the Volkswagen Golf GTI - one of the world's most enduring feel-good machines - which celebrated the big four-oh this year.

Now in its seventh generation, the GTI remains a staple - and a very lucrative one at that - of the German hatchback range.

Not bad considering that, way back in 1976 when VW launched the first GTI, they planned to release only 5000 units of this special model. Instead, more than two million have been produced in the ensuing four decades.

Like the donor Golf, it remains instantly recognisable as the progeny of that very first version - but one that's got better with every successive model update or upgrade. How can something be so much better while staying basically the same? I guess that's the power of German engineering for you.

To mark the Golf formally reaching middle age (without the grey hairs and round tummy, mind you), VW has released a special 40 Years edition of the GTI.

And it's not some once-over-lightly cosmetic exercise, either. Instead, the VW engineers have been let loose to give the GTI a hefty performance boost to emphasise that, while it might be entering its 40s, the Golf is in better shape than ever.

That power boost lifts its output to an impressive 195 kilowatts - plus an overboost function that delivers a snarling 213 kilowatts - for up to 10 seconds - when required for urgent acceleration or overtaking.

The Golf GTI is, to my mind, one of the best fit-for-purpose machines in the automotive world. It knows exactly where it fits into the scheme of things and has never tried to be something it's not.

It's not, for instance, a full-blown sports machine. That territory is amply filled in the VW lineup by the punchier, pointier Golf R.

Rather, the GTI sits atop the "conventional" Golf lineup - bringing all the practicality and appeal of the iconic German hatchback, but with a liberal dose of added driving engagement.

Which explains why VW had to tread warily when tinkering with this anniversary edition. The risk was spoiling a famous recipe by adding too much of a good thing.

Whereas previous GTIs have always been sparky, delighful things, that successful recipe has never included gaudy power outputs from their four-cylinder engine. Not much more than 140kW has always proven ample power to make the GTI a must-drive machine.

But this latest version moves dangerously close in power to the Golf R - a car that boasts all-wheel-drive and a specialised, focused handling package that makes it virtually racetrack ready.

Happily, the GTI recipe remains. That substantial extra dose of power has not compromised that long-held GTI ethic - it's fun but not too focused, quick but still eminently practical and driveable in everyday situations.

And even though it will reach the speed limit in a rapid 6.3 seconds, its thirst remains a respectable 7.1L/100km.

That added performance isn't the only enhancement VW have thrown into this commemorative model.

Mechanically, that extends to an electronic locking front differential, upgraded brakes and exhausts and a bespoke aero package.

It enjoys an upgraded technical package including adaptive cruise control and frontal collision avoidance with emergency city braking; adaptive chassis control, blind spot monitor, rear traffic alert.

There are some unique paint finishes, including contrasting black roof and new GTI lettering. There's even a subtle "celebrating 40 years" message along the door sills.

Inside, you'll find grippy, Alcantara leather-clad sports seats (also embossed with the GTI logo) which wrap around your buttocks and ribs to anchor you in place. And the chunky, flat-bottomed steering wheel is covered in the same tactile suede leather, giving it a luxe but practical feel. Classy little touches include red stitching highlights on upholstery and seatbelts.

It all sits on classy 19-inch "Ruby" alloy wheels - so named because of the car's ruby anniversary.

The Golf has some impressive competition in this sporty hatch segment - the sublime Peugeot GTI springs readily to mind - but it remains a formidable contender in a niche it virtually created and has continued to command for a couple of generations.

In this sharpened form, it's even more compelling. That snorting engine virtually explodes when you plant the right foot and the tacho needle starts to spin. And thanks to the six-speed DSG transmission, there's that characteristic crackle and pop on every gear change as the scenery starts to flash by very quickly indeed - all the way to a top speed of 250km/h.

Let's face it - that's more than fast enough for a 40-year-old.

VW GOLF GTI 40 YEARS EDITION

HOW BIG? Like the standard Golf, it delivers interior space that belies its compact dimensions. But it's compact enough to be nimble in city traffic and a breeze to park.

HOW FAST? Well, faster - much faster - than any Golf to previously wear the GTI badge. It will hit the speed limit in just over six seconds and has a top speed of 250km/h. And with its angry exhaust note it feels fast, as well.

HOW THIRSTY? It will guzzle a bit more than your average Golf - that's inevitable with this much performance. But at 7.1L/100km it's frugal enough.

HOW MUCH? With a six-speed dual-clutch auto, it will cost $48,990 plus onroad costs. If you're prepared to change gears yourself it's $2000 cheaper. But with a long list of equipment it's good buying - the only option is an $1800 moonroof.

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